The Abbey, a neighborhood sports bar and restaurant in De Pere, has become an institution among St. Norbert College students, alumni, faculty, and staff. (Photo by Christina Liefrring)
The Abbey, a neighborhood sports bar and restaurant in De Pere, has become an institution among St. Norbert College students, alumni, faculty, and staff. (Photo by Christina Liefrring)

Instead of keeping donations, the money was converted to gift cards for others in need.

Kerry Counard’s son was teaching in South Korea and came home to De Pere last year for the holidays. By then, the novel coronavirus had started to spread across east Asia, so when his son returned to South Korea, he had to self isolate.

“So we knew what was going on or what was potentially coming,” Counard said. “Obviously we didn’t know the potential ramifications that would have on our life here as Americans.”

Counard has been the owner and operator of The Abbey for 30 years, a neighborhood sports bar and restaurant across the street from St. Norbert College, a small liberal arts college. The Abbey has become an institution among St. Norbert students, alumni, faculty, and staff. 

“We’ve always been that go-to alumni bar where, depending on whatever year you graduated you have Abbey memories,” Coundard said. 

And like many sports bars, they were preparing for and counting on a boost from NCAA’s March Madness tournament. But then on March 21, the NCAA announced it would cancel the tournament due to COVID-19 and on March 25, Gov. Tony Evers enacted Safer at Home. So the Abbey switched to take-out only.

“We had one customer call in for take-out,” Counard said. “That was a pretty eye-opening event.”

Like many businesses across Wisconsin and the country, the Abbey had to adapt. But in The Abbey’s case, it was recognized by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. as one of the winners of the “We’re All Innovating” contest for prioritizing the health and wellbeing of its employees, customers, and community.

From early on, Counard closed down tables, opened up outdoor spaces, and moved any large groups around to maintain social distancing and increased the cleaning regimen. Once masks were recommended, he and management maintained a strict masking policy, even when customers pushed back. 

“That’s one of the things that I’m constantly doing as a leader is trying to remind my staff we’re in our masks all the time,” Counard said. “Nobody enjoys wearing a mask. It’s about respecting and sacrificing not necessarily for me but everybody.”

Partly it was because he didn’t want to get sick but he also didn’t want to pass the virus along to his wife who works in health care and he certainly didn’t want his employees or customers to get sick. Which all sounds pretty common sense, but not everyone was following the rules. 

“And I was questioning myself, whether or not I needed to be as diligent because other people had business,” Counard said. “And all of a sudden, I saw those other places having to close down because of close confirmed contact or an employee came in contact or an employee was sick and then half the staff became infected.” 

But there were two things that made The Abbey stand out: first, was Counard’s commitment to his employees, ensuring that they were paid and taken care of despite the lower volumes of customers. 

“I know that I’m sacrificing and I know that they’re sacrificing,” he said. “That’s part of why I’m sacrificing my pay and making sure that they get paid. And on days that were slow a lot of times I’ll take money out of my own pocket. Don’t tell my wife.”

The Abbey also stood out because of its pay-it-forward program. Counard said the business was receiving donations from concerned customers and former employees who wanted to help them stay afloat. Instead of pocketing the money, he decided to use it to fund a program where customers who order over a certain amount would receive a $20 gift card they could pass along to someone who needs it.

“We asked them to pay it forward to somebody that was on the front line or maybe couldn’t afford to eat out or hadn’t gotten any unemployment,” Counard said.

At one point he had $1,200-worth of gift cards out in circulation. The program got the attention of the state’s Department of Revenue, De Pere’s chamber of commerce and the national chamber of commerce. 

It was also one of the reasons the WEDC cited for awarding The Abbey the award, which comes with grant funds. The total dollar amount of the grant is $3 million but it’s split between all the winners. Counard couldn’t remember exactly how much money he would receive but he said it’s beside the point. 

“It’s more than anything a validation that the journey we started on a long time ago and the sacrifices that we made mean something to the majority of people,” he said.  

The journey is not over. While the first doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are being rolled out among healthcare workers, public health officials predict it will take several months to have enough people vaccinated to return to life as normal. Until then, Counard, The Abbey and all the other small businesses, restaurants and bars will just need to hold on as long as they can. 

“It’s a rollercoaster ride in this business: you hope for the good days. We lost all of our good days,” Counard said. “I have lowered the bar. My expectation right now is dig in and just try and survive.”